September 2, 2010

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – Strong City, KS

Most of my posts have focused on roadside attractions in towns both large and small. But I can’t neglect the natural beauty that is so evident when driving on the open road in Kansas. Many people have the pre-conceived notion that the Kansas landscape is nothing but flat wheat fields as far as the eye can see. But while we have plenty of wheat fields, the state is full of beautiful natural wonders. Perhaps the most majestic are the Flint Hills and at their heart – the last great stretch of prairie in the country.

At the heart of the Hills is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, the only preserve in the National Park system dedicated to grassland. Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres but now only 4% is left and almost all of it is in the Kansas Tallgrass Prairie Natural Preserve. The preserve is home to 500 species of plants, nearly 150 species of birds, 39 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve also honors Kansas history with the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch. There, you can tour the historic buildings that made prairie life possible in the 19th century – including, the spring room, the curing room, the ice house, the ranch house, and others.

To get to the preserve, I first drive west from Lawrence until I start to see the majestic Flint Hills from the flat, empty fields and then its two miles north of Strong City on K-177. To many, a large plot of grass may seem rather boring. But try living in Chicago for a few years, surrounded by concrete below you and steel above you. No matter how amazing the architecture may be, you are still living in man-made contraption that has swept away all of nature’s wonders to make room for the latest skyscraper.

Now stand in the Flint Hills and see the prairie in all of its luscious greens stretch out before you. The green ocean stretches out over the hills, seeming to rise and fall in green waves, as the clear, cobalt blue sky promises eternity. There is nothing to impede your vision. Only open land and open sky as far as the eye can see. It is freedom. Perfect freedom as nature intended.

These hills have inspired many tributes – such as Verlyn Klinkenborg’s article “Splendor in the Grass” for National Geographic. But there is more to the nature preserve then just grass. But perhaps the only person who comes close to capturing the awe-inspiring majesty of the prairie is William Least Heat-Moon when he said:
Whatever else prairie is – grass, sky, wind – it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness

Total Time Traveled: 3.5 hours
Total Distance Traveled: 200 miles
Soundtrack: "Middle Cyclone" and "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" Neko Case

Signpost Image from Kansas Travel and Tourism.
Aerial Image from The Nature Conservancy.


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